Remembering 9/11: New York-based writer recounts the horror of September 11

'I am breathing the pulverised World Trade Centre,' Herbert Bauernebel recalls thinking after being engulfed in plume of toxic dust

That sound … What is it? Clearly a plane. But it is too loud to be one of the hundreds of routine flights over the city making their way to or from New York’s three major airports on any given day.

I am sitting on my desk in my apartment on the 31st floor with perfect views of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre five blocks away. The sun on this picture-perfect, late summer day sparkles in the windows.

My alarm about this strange aircraft sound turns into horror as it becomes rapidly louder. Then, engines scream, a loud boom follows. Suddenly, I see an explosion on the north face of the building. The noise echoes through the Financial District in Lower Manhattan.

The flames are bright and blinding. Black smoke is now pouring from the 440-metre tall tower.

The column of smoke is peppered with thousands of papers that sail through the air like confetti in a parade. I am standing paralysed in front of the window, staring at the burning North Tower.

“What was that?” My wife, Estee, just got up. She is a few weeks pregnant with our first child.

I can hardly speak, pointing at the black smoke coming out of the burning offices. In moments of shock and disbelief, one holds on to the possibility of it being an accident. This hope quickly erodes 20 minutes later when the second plane hits.

We can hear the roaring plane sound again, this time farther to the south. I know exactly what’s going to happen. The next loud boom causes a shudder to ripple through the area. Instinctively, I duck under my desk. The second attack, this time on the South Tower, was broadcast live on TV. The entire world has now come to a standstill and is watching with horror the now obvious terror attack on New York City.

With the two towers burning, I get ready to go outside to report. My wife is extremely worried and so am I, but as a news correspondent, I have no choice. The streets are filled with people, all of them staring up at the Twin Towers.

I quickly reach the plaza between the towers, now filled with debris from the two plane crashes above. A woman sits on the street, blood gushing from a gaping wound on her head. I start interviewing people who have escaped the North Tower. They are walking in a steady column, wet from the heat in the staircases, many with blank stares.

“Oh, my God!” a woman screams: “They're jumping!”

First, I do not understand: who is jumping? I turn around, my heart pounding, my body shaking, as I see the first office workers jumping from more than 90 floors up. I can see the shape of a body falling along the northern facade of the building.

Shocked, I shout: “Why is no one helping them?”

Someone nearby shakes his head: “There is nothing that can be done.”

I stop to collect my thoughts while standing at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street.

In an instant, people begin screaming, running and scrambling, some falling to the ground in their attempt to escape. In what feels like extreme slow motion, I realise that one of the towers must have collapsed. Seconds later, the ash and debris cloud races towards us, appearing like a pyroclastic cloud after a volcanic eruption.

I start running for a few metres, but, realising I am not likely to escape, I decide to crawl under a parked minivan. I lock eyes with another person lying under the next car. The ash cloud covers the scene. Suddenly, it is pitch dark. And dead silent. Like a film being turned off.

I am breathing the pulverised World Trade Centre.

I imagine how my lungs are filling with toxic soot with every new breath. Angrily, I tell myself: “I am about to become a father, but now I am lying under a vehicle and will possibly suffocate.” The fear of death is rushing through my body, paralysing me.

Finally, I give myself a push and crawl from underneath the van and start walking, very slowly. It is still nearly impossible to see. I bump into a light pole, hitting my head. I can see a light at the entrance to a Chinese restaurant. The door is locked, and I bang against it, screaming, “Help me!” Someone opens it and I stumble inside. “Jesus Christ!” someone shouts.

I am completely covered in white dust.

My first clear thoughts are of my wife. I know I have to return home as quickly as possible as she must be fearing the worst, having witnessed the collapse of the building. I run down the ash-filled streets, dialling her number - but the network is overloaded.

Everyone stares at me as I enter the lobby of our building. I squeeze into a lift, explaining that my wife does not know that I am OK. Suddenly, my cell phone rings. It is Estee.

“I'm OK, I'm OK …” I stutter. Nearly everyone in the lift is now in tears.

After the collapse of the North Tower, we leave our apartment and start walking alongside thousands of others across the Brooklyn Bridge. From the other side, I can see New York’s devastated skyline: the Twin Towers are gone. Instead, there is only black smoke rising from a devastating wound in the city.

A man falls to his knees and cries out: “They're gone!”

Updated: September 8th 2021, 2:53 PM
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